Language instruction as a diversity initiative

Posted on January 24, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Are you an expat working in the US? If so, I’d like to know about the language and cultural challenges you face in the workplace. You can post a reponse here, or email


Any corporate diversity/inclusion initiative must include helping expats assimilate into the workforce. Diversity and inclusion are not just about leveraging difference, but about helping outsiders assimilate to the group.

Imagine for a moment that you are working in a foreign country and conducting business in a foreign language. Unless you have native-like fluency, you probably cannot express yourself as fully and profoundly as you would like to, and have to adjust your thoughts for what you’re capable of saying. You may be embarrassed or shy to speak up because of your limited language skills. You have a great depth of knowledge in your area of expertise, but don’t have the vocabulary to express it. Although you are influential in your native language, you have trouble leading in the foreign language in which you work.

I’m working on an article on the language and cultural challenges facing expat employees in the US. Almost 16% of the US workforce is foreign-born. 50% of the this group are Hispanic and 22% are Asians. Both groups tend to be in certain occupations. In some industries, expats can make up a signification percentage of a company’s human capital.

Among foreign-born workers, 2 tiers exist: Latinos with low education and low skills, and educated professionals from Asia. Both groups have workplace communication problems, but the problems are different for each group. For Hispanic workers in construction, manufacturing and services, workplace language issues may include following procedures, safety and reducing errors. For Asians in professional jobs, communication problems could include participating in meetings, delivering presentations, and business writing. Both groups will face problems in adjusting to American workplace culture.

Any training program must be tied to business objectives. Assuring your workforce has language fluency is tied to business objectives in that it:
• Reduces time to market through greater productivity
• Leads to fewer error and miscommunications
• Increases safety
• Taps into and maximizing talent


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9 Responses to “Language instruction as a diversity initiative”

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I think whether there are major language/cultural issues really depends on the experiences of the expat in question AND the workplace.

My husband came to the US for college, and really has no issues in the workplace. It helps that he speaks English without an accent and one of his majors was English Lit. So there’s no fluency issues. I suspect there might be a occasional cultural issues, but they’re more of the “I don’t get that pop-culture joke” than difficulty presenting reports.

As far as the workplace is concerned, if you’re in company with more non-Americans than not (like in my workplace), what group do you “assimilate” to? It’s not American workplace culture – it’s an intercultural mishmash.

I agree with you that it depends on the experience and needs of the expats. This post was based on my many experiences working with expats with limited English and/or accents that interfered with understandability. One Chinese man told me that in China, he has great leadership skills, but he loses this ability when speaking English. Clearly, his company is not harvesting his full potential. Business English, both oral and written, has a unique vocabulary, tone and style and is can have nuances unfamiliar to the language learner.

It is estimated that relocation costs a company approx. 7 times the employees annual salary. For that type of investment, it makes sense to make sure you are utilizing all their skills and abilities.

Although many companies today have a variety of cultures represented in the workplace, English is still the preferred language of business in the US. (many people also need to communicate with external contacts) Language training helps the employee assimilate not only to the workplace, but to the larger culture. It lowers frustration and anxiety levels and creates greater opportunities for interaction.

Hi Lauren,

Some years ago I went to work in Belgium at the European Commission. I am a native English speaker and have studied French and German. However, I am not fluent in either of those languages.

I was lucky that one of the working languages at the EC is English. Outside of work was a different story. I took a French class while I was there, but although I was able to understand pretty much everything that was said to me, it took me way too long to formulate a reply. Consequently, I felt and sounded like an idiot.

I have come to the conclusion that what would have been helpful is an auxilliary language that allows you to express yourself as required, but that is easier to become fluent in. That is why I am learning Esperanto at the moment. I’ve only been learning for three months and am now in regular communication with people from all sorts of countries, many of whom don’t speak English at all or minimally at best.

Before I tried it, I had heard a lot of negative things about Esperanto. Now that I have actually taken the time to investigate it myself, I find that Esperanto has given me a knew confidence regarding language learning. I have even renewed my efforts with French and German.

Dear Lauren,
From my experience it is very crucial not only learning languages of the countries with which we are dealing/cooperating but as well history and culture of this nation. It is crucial for not only good cooperation/relation, but also to avoid serious mistakes leading to serious consequences.
Many mistakes are made by the language techers.
#1 – language have to be taught the way that person quit translating and started tothink in used language – THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT.
#2 – Knowlwdge of history and culture prevent unintentional insult or offence – THIS IS ALSO CRUCIAL.
#3 – As an addition everyone who travel for the busines purposes shall learn at least INTERNATIONA LAW.
#4 – If it travel for enjoyment is for important to learn as well local laws.



Not only should you understand the history and culture of the country, you should also take into account the religion of the country. Some words can be sensitive to the local people without a foreigner knowing it. For example, in the past news, an English teacher naming a teddy bear after the religious leader…etc.

my 2 cents.

In our experience, we find that corporations that incorporate Language Training do so under the auspices of a business objective (ie, improving customer service calls, communication with clients and mgrs, etc) and not as a part of their diversity initiatives.

I think the difference has to do with tracking. Companies often do not have long-term diversity initiatives that they are monitoring for quantifiable results.
They do however track Learning and Development initiatives closely for these things, and that is why LT projects tend to fall under that umbrella.

Moreover a smart LT provider will not try to connect LT with relocation packages, as that is a one time perk to the employee and not a long term development goal which can be tracked, renewed and revised.

For these reasons I agree with the arguements for training, but not the premise that it should be a diversity issue. For companies it is primarily an employee development issue.

Hi Lauren,
I can understand what you are talking about. Currently I’m working in India to train some peoples on IT issues.
As you write most of the problem rises due to the miscommunications. It is not only related to the use of a different language … you can learn and get able to speak in a foreign language (mostly English). Most of the problems comes out because there are cultural differences, attitude, views and so on …
As an expat you should understand the culture of the people that guestes you; you should learn not only the word to use but when and why to use it. The same words in different countries and cultures my lead people in different mood.
You should understand and become part of the local people … not only learn to use the new language (that I think it is the easiest part of the effort). It’s even a matter of strategic communication (that can differ from country to country).


Hi Lauren,

I feel that any language training on an organizational level is in itself a diversity initiative by nature; however, along with Ben, I have seen that companies usually implement the training as a path to greater productivity/profitability first and foremost. The side benefit is greater diversity and cultural understanding.

Usually only the largest, most progressive organizations will fully embrace a cultural awareness/diversity program on its own merits. It’s interesting for me to ponder how often these programs are primarily a PR initiative, or if they truly spring from feelings that the investment of time and money in people will produce a tangible ROI.

Really, to me there is no separating the two: it’s a no-brainer that greater communication will positively affect the bottom line.

Rather, one of the recurring complaints we hear from organizations is that they have tried various methods of language training over the years, but with disappointing results. They have brought in tutors from the local college, offered access to online language training, used Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone or similar software, etc.; the results have just not been satisfactory and/or lasting.

When I was in the construction business we all tried the same things for helping people, but to no avail. Truth is, there’s no substitute or shortcut to structured, face-to-face learning. Those other methods are best when utilized as supplemental resources.

As far as expats and assimilation: today in the US, the lines are pretty blurry between expats and residents when it comes to English language skills. For example in Nevada, where I live, 68% of resident Hispanics speak a language other than English at home, but “only” 48% of those residents are immigrants, per

Bottom line is, to succeed to their full potential in the US, people should commit themselves and their family members to learning English to at least a functional level, by whatever methods available. It is the most utilized language after all, and for most purposes, the only/dominant language of business.

John Mierzwa
CALA Academy

As a short comment from someone who has worked as an expat (American is Europe) for seven years I would make one STRONG suggestion. When working with associates who do not speak the language fluently there is nothing wrong with correcting their english – either spoken or written. We in the U.S. tend to accept less than perfect when it comes to our language. I always ask those whose first language is other than English if it is permissable to correct them. In all cases I have found that they realy do appreciate it. So, your U.S. staff can be a great assist to those that have other first languages.

By the way, this is what happened to me when I first went to work in Germany with a basic knowledge of the German language. It assisted me in learning the language, expecially the idioms and colloqualisms (spelling?).

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